December 01, 2016

Homeless Youth Law & Policy Summit Exploring Barriers and Solutions

Julie Butner

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Do you know the top civil legal issues for homeless youth?

  • obtaining benefits
  • keeping families intact
  • landlord-tenant disputes
  • emancipation
  • obtaining court orders (e.g., permitting a medical procedure)
  • changing a youth’s name or gender identity
  • accessing school records

It is easy to understand why a teenager or young adult might be intimidated to go into court or a government office to address these issues without an attorney. 

More than 100 lawyers and experts gathered at the Washington, DC law firm Baker & McKenzie for a two-day summit on September 28-29, 2016. The summit, organized by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, focused on homeless youth and shared policies and best practices to address common challenges. 

Megan Gibbard, director of A Way Home America (AWHA), kicked off the summit by announcing they had recently launched ambitious programs in Austin, Cleveland, and Los Angeles to end youth homelessness in the next 100 days.1  AWHA is a national initiative to end youth homelessness by 2020. The plan to prevent and end youth homelessness is based on five tenets: prevention, emergency response, safe and stable housing, providing support for families, and focusing on youth of color and LGBTQ youth.

Next, youth panelists Silas, Courtney, Sharday, and Yonis shared their experiences of missing school, finding caseworkers who cared, and tackling challenges they didn’t know were legal, but where a lawyer could have improved the outcome. The panel grounded participants in the issues to be discussed over the next two days.

Silas described a “culture of degradation” when actions such as sitting in a park and camping were criminalized. Sharday shared her challenges with the child welfare system. All four youth talked about challenges getting an ID and how a high school ID card wasn’t sufficient to prove identity. 

The youth set the stage for discussions on access to justice, LGBTQ youth, criminalization of life-sustaining acts and status offenses, improving public systems, employment, and education. These were not theoretical issues; these were real problems experienced by real youth sitting at the front of the room. The summit participants came prepared to discuss concrete solutions and set goals for improving their own organizations.

Darla Bardine of National Network for Youth and Brian Blalock of Tipping Point Community explained how an attorney can amplify a youth’s voice and hold the system accountable. Many times, youth are unaware there can be a legal solution to their problem. Know Your Rights programming can inform youth of their rights to apply for benefits, access education, and obtain housing. Bay Area Legal Aid shared a successful program where the city provides lawyers to assist in filling out SSI applications. Once the client receives back SSI payments, the city collects a lien, making this program cost-positive and sustainable.

A common theme was the importance of meeting youth where they are, and that homeless youth differ from other clients needing legal assistance. Because youth worry about personal safety, they may not be able to seek out a lawyer. Speakers suggested WIC offices, hospitals, libraries, shelters, and drop-in programs as good places to connect youth with legal assistance. For employment, youth requested that job agencies come to them, rather than providing a referral to a website or an office. They also suggested creating apps to help them connect to services, specifically a program to check if shelter beds are available or to ask a lawyer a question.

YouthCare in Seattle found success with a full-time attorney who serves as a point of contact for youth and distributes the case work to pro bono attorneys. This approach provides a single, consistent support for youth, and solves a common problem among programs that depend on volunteers.

A challenge for LGBTQ homeless youth is obtaining correct identification. Only 10 states and DC allow a fee waiver to obtain a new state ID card. Under the REAL ID Act2 an individual must show a birth certificate or passport to get an ID—and 46 states require a photo ID to obtain a birth certificate, a catch-22 that is difficult for homeless youth to overcome. Twenty-four states require parental consent to get a new ID, and a significant number of youth have experienced discrimination and harassment because their gender identity does not match their ID.

When discussing public systems and responsibility, the consensus was clear—we need a new way of looking at out-of-home youth. Debby Shore of Sasha Bruce Youthwork proposed looking at homeless youth as a system, similar to youth in the child welfare, juvenile justice, and education systems. By recognizing and normalizing youth homelessness, we can better respond to their needs and provide services. It is also important to recognize that our shelter system was built for homeless adults and the child welfare system was crafted to protect young children from abuse or neglect. Street youth need services tailored to their needs.

Education is viewed as a ticket out for many homeless youth. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)3  brings significant changes and the Department of Education has issued regulations and guidance on the new law. One challenge for older youth was filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Courtney, a young adult pursuing an MBA, said she dreaded the annual request to provide documentation showing she was not receiving parental support while facing challenges like finding somewhere to live over Christmas and summer breaks. The Department of Education has acknowledged this and taken steps to recognize independent students and streamline the financial aid process. ESSA also requires the child welfare and education systems to work together so youth do not fall through the cracks. One school system shared their practice of using the label “Students in Temporary Living Situations” rather than “homeless” to make it easier for students to self-identify to receive services under the McKinney-Vento Act.

The American Bar Association showed its strong support for ending youth homelessness as President-Elect Hilarie Bass announced creating the Homeless Youth Legal Network (see box). HYLN will provide greater legal protection, improved outcomes, and access to justice by integrating services across the country and promoting legislative advocacy. Federal agencies also showed their commitment, sending representatives from the Family & Youth Services Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, and the Department of Education. Participants left the summit feeling energized and empowered to bring improvements back to their communities. See the sidebar for ways lawyers can get involved.

Julie Butner, JD, is a policy fellow with the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law, hosted at the ABA Center on Children in the Law, Washington, DC.

The summit was organized by the American Bar Association, Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, Coordinating Committee on the Legal Needs of Homeless Youth, Commission on Youth at Risk, Section of Litigation Children’s Rights Litigation Committee, and supported by The Raikes Foundation & United Way of King County and Baker & McKenzie.


1. For more information on the 100-Day Challenge, see and

 2. Pub. L. 109–13.

 3. Pub. L. No. 114-95.

 4. Pub. L. No. 100-77.

Sidebar: How Lawyers Can Help

  • Volunteer at a legal clinic that serves homeless youth in the community, such as at shelters, drop-in centers, and libraries.
  • Help homeless youth apply for public benefits.
  • Request fee waivers when representing homeless youth in court.
  • Provide Know Your Rights trainings on access to education, camping, and other issues affecting homeless youth.
  • Speak up against laws and ordinances that criminalize normal human actions, such as sitting on a park bench.
  • Help youth seal any criminal records that may be blocking them from accessing employment and housing.

Sidebar: ABA Homeless Youth Legal Network

About HYLN: The ABA is preparing to launch the Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN) to connect youth with legal service providers. HYLN will leverage the strengths of existing programs for homeless youth, share best practices, and promote national coordination and advocacy. It will include a:

  • hotline
  • collaboration center
  • law and policy advocacy center
  • data and training center 

One of the first projects will be coordinating 5-10 pilot sites offering legal and employment clinics for homeless youth.

Survey: If your organization provides services (legal or nonlegal) for homeless youth, please join HYLN by completing this online survey.

For more information: Contact Amy Horton-Newell, Director of the ABA Commission on Homelessness & Poverty, (202) 662-1693.